Confessions of a Selfie Addict

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…many Instagrammers have, in an effort to add gravitas to their feeds, turned their backs on self-evident charms of the selfie in favor of more sincere genres. Examples include flowers ’n’ sunsets, and, my least favorite, those screenshots of text, usually platitudes of the what-doesn’t-kill-you-will-make-you-stronger variety. Also a bit worrying: those heartwarming pictures of (nonconsenting) pets and children. These make me nervous. I have visions of these unwittingly Instagrammed brats decrying their parents in therapists’ offices in years to come, claiming toddler privacy violations.

I make no apologies for being an unapologetic selfie-apologist. The same boring people who decry the selfie are the ones who used to insist on shoving their TVs inside a French armoire. That is so ratchet! (Am not exactly sure what ratchet means, but the Chainsmokers use it in their “Selfie” song so it must be groovy and au courant.) Selfies are fabulously stupid. Selfie vanity is life-affirming. There’s a manic pouting tween inside all of us. Set her free! Long live the selfie!

While dragging my eyeballs across these endless images of pets and peonies, I made a critical discovery: The most enthralling Instagrammers are, paradoxically, the ones with the most superficial occupations. Nuclear physicists and politicians are a big yawn, but models and makeup artists, are, whether intentionally or unintentionally, quite bizarrely entertaining.

Why Does Everyone Suddenly Have Fancy Fake Teeth?

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Michael Apa remembers the first time a patient told him she wanted her teeth fixed because she didn’t like the way they looked in selfies. It was 2015, and Apa’s patient was Huda Kattan, who had good reason to care about her smile: Kattan has leveraged her popular beauty blog and millions of Instagram followers to build a global cosmetics brand, Huda Beauty. In the process, her path to success has been dotted with thousands of close-up images and videos of her own face. To perfect her teeth, Kattan opted for porcelain veneers, which have exploded in popularity in the past 10 years.

Faking it: how selfie dysmorphia is driving people to seek surgery

(L-r) A Portrait of Elle Hunt, taken in natural light on a digital camera; a selfie, taken on an iPhone without a filter; a selfie, with a Snapchat filter

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Filters have never been more prevalent – and it’s leading some people to have fillers, Botox and other procedures. What’s behind the obsessive pursuit of a flawless look?

With so much of life now lived online, from dating to job-hunting, recent, quality images of yourself are also a necessity – it is no wonder that Facetune (Apple’s most popular paid-for app of 2017) and the free follow-up Facetune2 have more than 55m users between them. Stav Tishler of Lightricks, the company behind them, says making airbrushing accessible has challenged “that illusion that ‘a perfect body’ exists … and levelled out the playing field”: “Everyone knows everyone is using it, supermodels and ‘everyday’ people alike.”

The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience’

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These places are often described as “Instagram Museums,” and the real experience plays out only after we post photographic evidence on social media. The internet is an increasingly visual space, and these museums, with their enormous pools of candy and gargantuan emoji props, are designed to fit the shrunken-down Instagram grid. What’s the point of anything else?

The central disappointment of these spaces is not that they are so narcissistic, but rather that they seem to have such a low view of the people who visit them. Observing a work of art or climbing a mountain actually invites us to create meaning in our lives. But in these spaces, the idea of “interacting” with the world is made so slickly transactional that our role is hugely diminished. Stalking through the colorful hallways of New York’s “experiences,” I felt like a shell of a person. It was as if I was witnessing the total erosion of meaning itself. And when I posted a selfie from the Rosé Mansion saying as much, all of my friends liked it.

China’s Selfie Obsession

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Worldwide, Meitu’s apps generate some six billion photos a month, and it has been estimated that more than half the selfies uploaded on Chinese social media have been edited using Meitu’s products. HoneyCC told me that it is considered a solecism to share a photo of yourself that you haven’t doctored. “Selfies are part of Chinese culture now, and so is Meitu-editing selfies,” she said. In nine years, the company—whose motto is “To make the world a more beautiful place”—has almost literally transformed the face of China. There’s a name for this new kind of face, perfected by the Meitu apps, which you now see everywhere: wang hong lian (“Internet-celebrity face”).

Chen Xiaojie, a twenty-seven-year-old with caramel-colored contact lenses and waist-length hair, gave me a demonstration of Meitu’s most popular apps, on her Meitu M8 phone. Holding the device at arm’s length, she tucked in her chin (“so the face comes out smaller”), snapped a photo of us, and handed me the result. My complexion looked smoother, my eyes bigger and rounder. I asked if I had been “P”-ed—the Chinese shorthand for Photoshopping. Chen said that the phone had automatically “upgraded” me. “Only when you enjoy taking selfies will you have the confidence to take more,” she explained. “And only when you look pretty will you enjoy taking selfies and ‘P’-ing the photo. It’s all very logical, you see.”

Next, using the BeautyPlus app, she showed me how to select a “beauty level” from 1 to 7—a progressive scale of paleness and freckle deletion. Then we could smooth out, tone, slim, and contour our faces, whiten our teeth, resize our irises, cinch our waists, and add a few inches in height. We could apply a filter—“celestial,” “voodoo,” “edge,” and “vibes” are some of the options. A recently added filter called “personality” attempts to counteract a foreseeable consequence of the technology: the more that people doctor their selfies, the more everyone ends up looking the same. Like everything else in the app, the personalities available—“boho,” “mystique,” and so on—are preset.

Chen opened up the BeautyCam app and the words “Beauty Is Justice!” flashed up on the screen. The interface was laid out like Candy Land, with a winding path of rabbits, rainbows, and unicorns. Then came MakeupPlus, which not only applies foundation, lipstick, blush, eyeshadow, and mascara, but can also dye your hair, shape your brows, and change your eye color. Meitu has recently started partnerships with a number of cosmetics brands, including Sephora, Lancôme, and Bobbi Brown; users can test products on their selfies and then be redirected to the brands’ Web sites to place their orders.

I asked a number of Chinese friends how long it takes them to edit a photo before posting it on social media. The answer for most of them was about forty minutes per face; a selfie taken with a friend would take well over an hour. The work requires several apps, each of which has particular strengths. No one I asked would consider posting or sending a photo that hadn’t been improved.

A Starry Night Crowded With Selfies

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The city’s summer tourist season is ending, but visitors still crowd four and five deep in neck-craning hubbubs, brandishing phones to take close-ups and grinning selfies and somehow partake of “Starry Night,” the van Gogh masterpiece at the Museum of Modern Art.

The crowds were ceaseless all summer, as they are much of the year — bobbing, weaving, snapping away, denying quiet contemplation. They puzzle no less an art lover than Ann Temkin, the chief curator of painting and sculpture, who has watched the “crazy magnetism” of the painting and her beloved Vincent grow ever since cameras first appeared on phones.

“It’s as if taking a photo of a work in a museum means ‘seeing’ it to a viewer, even though someone like me worries that taking the photo replaces seeing it in the slow and thoughtful way I would ideally wish,” Ms. Temkin ruefully concedes at the bustling museum. “And the problem with all the photo-takers is that they make it impossible for someone who wants to do that kind of looking to do so.”